AURORA, Colo. — Defense attorneys in the notorious 1984 hammer murders of three members of the Bennett family in Aurora have accused police and prosecutors of misleading the public on a key allegation in the case – that the killer sexually assaulted the only survivor, a 3-year-old girl.
Vanessa Bennett suffered massive head injuries in the attack that left her parents, Bruce and Debra, and 7-year-old sister, Melissa, dead. Melissa Bennett was sexually assaulted, according to court documents—and that has not been disputed.
But attorneys for the man now set to stand trial in the case contend that Vanessa, who was horribly beaten but survived, was not sexually assaulted – and that police and prosecutors have repeatedly misled the public about that in court documents asserting that she was. And they want the judge to sanction the prosecution -- and even consider dropping the charges in the case.
Vanessa Bennett, who has had a difficult life as a result of the brain injuries she suffered, told 9NEWS in a 2018 interview that she had no memory of the attack.
"I don't remember anything at all," she said. "I remember, like, bits and pieces of the last Christmas. But that's it."
The sexual assault assertion involving Vanessa has been made repeatedly over the past two decades in court filings.
“These statements are false,” attorneys for Alex Christopher Ewing, identified as a suspect in the case after a 2018 DNA hit, wrote in a motion seeking the dismissal of charges or other sanctions against prosecutors.
The filing is among dozens of motions that are expected to be argued this week in an Arapahoe County courtroom – and the outcome could dramatically alter the course of Ewing’s trial on multiple counts of first-degree murder in the Bennett attack. Other defense motions include a request for a change of venue and multiple efforts to suppress potential evidence.
The trial is scheduled to begin April 19.
Ewing, 60, was behind bars in Nevada for an ax-handle attack on a Henderson couple that occurred seven months after the Bennett murders when, according to court documents, his DNA was matched to genetic material from suspected semen that was recovered from Melissa Bennett’s body and from a comforter and carpeting in the bedroom shared by the two girls.
Initial news reports suggested that Melissa was sexually assaulted – but that Vanessa had not.
For example, a 9NEWS report on Jan. 16, 1984, included this line: “A coroner says at least one of them, Melissa, appears to have been sexually assaulted.”
That story made no mention of a sexual attack on Vanessa, whose injuries were so severe that it wasn’t clear she would survive.
A day later, the Denver Post reported that “doctors at Children’s Hospital said there was no indication Vanessa was sexually molested.”
And 10 days after the killings, the Rocky Mountain News carried a story that included an assertion from Dr. John M. Wood, then the Arapahoe County coroner, that “Melissa was the only one sexually assaulted in the attack.”
Fast forward to June 2002. That month, an Aurora police investigator wrote an affidavit for an arrest warrant for a John Doe whose DNA profile was identified from semen left at the scene and on Melissa’s body.
Although investigators hadn’t identified a suspect, they had a DNA profile – and they took the novel approach of obtaining that warrant and laying out charges against the unnamed person who left the genetic material at the scene.
In the affidavit, the detective wrote about the attacks on each member of the family. When it came to Vanessa, the affidavit asserted that the girl had “trauma” which was “consistent with sexual assault.”
That affidavit led to the filing of charges that included two sexual assault allegations involving Vanessa. One alleged the killer sexually assaulted her through the “application of physical force,” the other that the killer sexually assaulted her while she was less than 15 and he was at least four years older than her.
But defense attorneys argued in their motion that the original police reports show that a doctor who examined Vanessa saw “no signs” of trauma suggesting sexual assault and “no sign” of semen on her body.
Those details are contained in the original police reports, according to the filing.
The defense motion noted that “these statements are contained in sworn affidavits, filed with the courts to obtain court action, provided to the governors of Colorado and Nevada to obtain and defend extradition, filed with courts in Nevada (including the Nevada Supreme Court) and Colorado to obtain and defend extradition, and made available to the public through publicly available pleadings.”
“The prosecution and its agents know these statements are untrue or have made these false statements with a reckless disregard for the truth,” Ewing’s attorneys, Stephen McCrohan and Katherine Spengler, wrote. “Neither the prosecution nor its agents have sought to correct these false statements in any of the forums where they have been made.”
Ewing originally was charged with sexually assaulting both girls. However, prosecutors dismissed those counts last July, citing the statute of limitations.
Ewing’s attorneys requested sanctions and provided a judge with possibilities, including the dismissal of all charges; the suppression of Ewing’s DNA; a reduction in charges to lower-level felonies; a change of venue; an order that the prosecution “be compelled to correct its false statements in every forum where they have been presented”; and “any other sanction the court deems appropriate.”
Chief District Judge Michelle Amico is expected to take up the motion and a flurry of others at hearings scheduled Tuesday and Wednesday.
One calls for the trial to be moved, citing extensive news coverage about the case.
“While this crime dates back to 1984, the media and local interest in this case has been intense and persistent, and information revealed in 1984 has simply been repeated again in 2010 and again from 2018-current day,” Ewing’s attorneys wrote. “The seeds of prejudice and impartiality of press from 1984 and 2010 as authorities raced to catch a suspect blossomed instantly when it was announced in 2018 that Alex Ewing was identified as a suspect in the ‘Aurora Hammer Murder’ case.”
Among the media reporting cited in the motion is a 9NEWS podcast about the case.
In all, there are dozens of motions that have been filed by the defense but not yet ruled on. They cover the gamut – one asks for the dismissal of charges over the 34-year “delay in prosecution,” one seeks to suppress statements Ewing allegedly made to an Aurora police investigator in July 2018, and another asks that Ewing be allowed to appear in court without restraints.
Ewing also faces separate murder charges in the Jan. 10, 1984, rape and murder of Patricia Louise Smith in Lakewood. That killing occurred six days before the attack on the Bennetts.
That trial has not yet been scheduled.
Ewing was arrested in Kingman, Ariz., 11 days after the Bennett murders in a late-night attack on a sleeping man who was hit with a large rock. Later that summer, while being transported to court, he escaped and later that night attacked a couple in their home outside Las Vegas. He was on the lam two days before being caught, arrested and convicted in that case.
He was still behind bars for that attack case when he was identified as a suspect in the two Colorado cases.
In all, he has been locked up for all but 11 days since the Bennett killings.
Contact 9Wants to Know investigator Kevin Vaughan with tips about this or any story: firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-871-1862.
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